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Archive for September, 2010|Monthly archive page

Blog Topic 2: The Man Behind the Curtain

In Uncategorized on September 29, 2010 at 12:36 am

More than anything, blogs beg the question, “What is real?”

Scott Rosenberg’s thoughts on authenticity in blogging, as well as those presented in both the Cluetrain Manifesto and the Edelman Trust Barometer, offer endless implications for both private bloggers and those who do so in a business capacity.

To be presented with the challenge of offering advice to a CEO thinking of starting a blog requires an attempt to find a balance between protection of legitimate trade secrets and transparency for the sake of credibility. At first glance, the achievement of such a balance seems impossible. But the most simple of stories can exemplify the importance of authenticity and how it can be best harnessed to create success.

In 1939, a quirky little book by L. Frank Baum was made into a film that would become the most viewed movie of all time. In The Wizard of Oz, 12-year-old Dorothy Gale must complete a quest through her own dreams to find her way home. Along the way, she befriends as ragtag gang of accomplices – a scarecrow in search of a brain, a tin man in search of a heart, and a cowardly lion in search of courage.

Throughout their journey, forces of good and evil play off of one another. Dorothy must chose her own path, but the influences of both her flawed friends and her desire to avoid the disingenuous traps of the Wicked Witch of the West inform her decisions. After navigating the Yellow Brick Road through a minefield of noise and disorganization, Dorothy and her friends finally arrive in Oz, home to the wizard in whom all of their varied hopes rest – the scarecrow and his desire for intelligence, the tin man and his desire for feeling, the lion with his desire for bravery, and Dorothy with her simple hope to escape an unfamiliar land and return to her simple but valuable life.

Upon arriving in Oz, the travelers are taken aback to discover not a wizard, but an intimidating and distorted substitute for a man. They find themselves appealing not to a person, but a looming green monster – the facsimile of a man who has little power to relate to them on a human level, let alone solve their varied problems. This is, of course, before Toto goes rogue and takes matters into his own paws, tugging determinedly at a curtain that hangs next to the terrifying hologram of the wizard’s face.

Behind the curtain, a man is revealed. Not a handsome man or a strong man — not even a green man. Just a man, desperately clinging to an intimidating mask of faux power in order to retain his position in a world in which inauthentic voices seem to drown out all others. But perhaps to his surprise, his guests find his diminutive and all-too-human stature a relief. As much as a colossal green face on a screen cannot help them, a man can. And a man does, listening to each of their dilemmas and helping them help themselves. Better than a magic wand or an effective potion, the Wizard assists Dorothy and her friends to find the power inherent within themselves and to harness their distinct personalities to attain their desires.

A CEO who is contemplating starting a blog should consider the Wizard. Rather than hiding behind curtains of secrecy and cheap intimations of power, business bloggers should be both honest and human. Authenticity, in essence, lies not in explicit revelation of a company’s every cog and spare part, but in simply staring an audience in the eye and addressing their concerns and desires without the sheen of pretense. Visitors to blogs navigate paths as confusing and distracting as the Yellow Brick Road every day, and should be rewarded by CEOs for choosing their respective blogs as destinations. Instead of luring audiences to their blogs and attempting to trap them with sickly sweet words, CEOs should use their human voices to discern the needs of their clients and, in turn, help these clients find what they need in a manner unique to their own identities.

Easier said than done, doubters might say. How on earth can one CEO address the varied needs of lions, tigers, and bears (Oh, my!) through one blog? The answer should by now be obvious: with a heart, a brain, and a little bit of courage.

Advice from the Scarecrow: When attempting to interact with his or her online audience, a CEO should, as Heather Armstrong would likely agree, use their brains and not make stupid decisions. Authenticity and transparency is one thing – inappropriate commentary and polarizing dialogue is another. Especially when harnessing the powerful voices of its employees on a blog, a company should err on the side of caution. Like in any professional environment, open dialogue on a company blog should remain germane and diplomatic. Exercising a distinct human tone does not require a raised voice or harsh language.

Advice from the Tin Man: As emphasized by the Cluetrain Manifesto, humans sound the most human when they use their hearts as frequently as they use their heads. Any CEO desiring to engage in online communication via a blog should remember this and act accordingly. The true lifeblood of any company is, of course, not a single heart, but many beating in tandem. A CEO’s support staff and employees both understand and care about the fate and operations of the company more than anyone else. These passions should be harnessed on blogs to address the diverse needs and personalities of customers while simultaneously giving them an outlet to express their expertise and rich perspectives.

Advice from the Lion: Being brave in the online marketplace of conversation amounts to little more than openness and honesty. It takes a great degree of courage to open up conversations that have historically taken place behind the closed doors of small rooms. In doing so, CEOs place their trust in the public to rationally interpret facts and information and not wage war over the smallest of flaws and missteps. Fortunately, the public is much more likely to be forgiving and understanding of a corporation that seems human than one that remains a closed Pandora’s Box. Forgiveness, after all, tends to be offered more frequently to people than to robots.

In the virtual marketplace in which many blogs are executed in Technicolor, resplendent with fanciful language, intriguing claims, and dramatic dialogue, CEO bloggers should recall The Wizard of Oz. The characters with which Dorothy chose to populate her colorful dream world were none other than variations of the real people that made her black and white life meaningful. And when it was all said and done, she willingly gave up a pair of ruby slippers, a good witch, and an emerald city in order to click her heels together and get back to her simple, grayscale reality.

Blog Topic 1: The Cluetrain Theses & Variations on a Theme

In Uncategorized on September 21, 2010 at 7:53 pm

Reading the 95 theses of the Cluetrain Manifesto calls to mind any number of examples of people trying to futilely quantify concepts that are, in fact, limitless. It is all-too-easy to think of John Barger (blogger and self-proclaimed inventor of the term “weblog”) painstakingly attempting to identify and organize every literary theme in human history on index cards spread across the floor of an empty gymnasium.

How can any one person — or even group of people — identify the infinite strata that orbit any set of basic themes? Anything relating to literature or art or human nature is simply too intricate and valuable to ever really be thoroughly accounted for in a list. Which is why, when trying to pare down the quantity of the Cluetrain theses, I turned to an analogy that was more limited in scope, but that had been successful in capturing the character of an unquantifiable theme.

In 1873, Johannes Brahms wrote a piece of music that would come to be known as “Variations on a Theme by Haydn.” After years of piano lessons, as I read the 95 theses of the Cluetrain Manifesto, I kept thinking back to this work and its unlikely similarities to the document that would ultimately preempt a 21st Century phenomenon.

What was Brahms’ “theme?” Was it literally new versions of a piece of work previously composed by Haydn? Was it a mood? A title? A subject?  As a kid desperately trying to pick out the complex combinations of notes on the keys in front of me, I saw it as none of these things. To me, the “theme” was the scale, the letters A through G that have comprised every piece of music since the beginning of time, long before their alphabetical labels were attached. Every song, in effect, is a variation on this theme.

Brahms, for what it’s worth, had ten variations. All of them were based around the central concept of Haydn’s original piece, but reflected very different styles, cultures, and eras. Like people’s postings on an online message board or comments on a blog, they reveal surprisingly complex views of something that on paper seems much more flat and one-sided.

Similarly, I feel the Cluetrain Manifesto to be a repeated ten-measure passage with endless possibilities for alternative interpretations. Ten – a number more suited to commandments than theses, and for good reason. Because unlike Martin Luther’s list of grievances, the Cluetrain Manifesto offers more useful suggestions than it does demands for redress.

Though hardly inclusive of every detail of the Cluetrain list, the following represents what I feel to be the main arguments of the document:

  1. The online community is a market comprised of human people.
  2. The people that comprise this virtual bazaar have distinctive, flawed, and personality-laden voices that will prompt resurgence in the power of human-sounding, conversational language.
  3. People use these unique human voices within the online marketplace to create conversations on a variety of levels both within and beyond groups established in the outside world.
  4. The freedom and anonymity of online market dialogue encourages a great degree of openness and transparency more typical of a conversation between friends than corporate robo-speak.
  5. Because of this openness, online markets are smart, well informed, and critical. Therefore, they have real power. Participants are aware of this power and will use it to offset the corporate communications dominance of the last century.
  6. Companies have historically failed to really connect with their customers and define their products and missions in human ways. The conversational marketplace of the web gives them the opportunity to change this and participate in vibrant human dialogue that can improve and popularize their products and services.
  7. Companies will fail in their missions, sales, and efforts to communicate online if they do so in closed, one-way, and inhuman ways and with an inhuman voices not reflective of individual employees, which are their greatest resources and communicative tools.
  8. Participation in the online conversational marketplace by both companies and individuals must be egalitarian and non-vertical. Attempting to create contrived online hierarchies will only subvert inclusion in the conversation.
  9. Everyone wants to talk to one another – companies want to talk to customers and employees, employees want to talk to companies and customers, and customers want to talk to companies and their employees. Every online conversationalist likely has served in all three of these roles at some point. The trick is for everyone to converse online in human language – the only effective dialogue on the web.
  10. In this new online marketplace of conversation, individual human beings wield the most power. In order to harness this power, companies must lower their ivory towers and break down their walls, instead showcasing the faces and voices within.

Jingle Bells” includes no fewer notes than Bach’s Cello Suites or “Paint It Black” by the Rolling Stones – all of them are variations on the theme of music, the theme of the scale. When you add factors like differences in sound between pianos, the number of possible combinations you are left with can best be represented not by seven notes, but an eight that has collapsed onto its side from the sheer burden of possibility – ∞: an infinity.

Cluetrain is much the same. If the theme is a marketplace of human conversation, then the variations are as limitless as human character. Anyone could take the ten theses I identified and add all sorts of caveats, addendums, and combinations thereof to create a list of infinite length. Likewise, someone could just as easily argue for even more fat to be cut — for the ten to be reduced to five. Which in and of itself  illustrates the entire premise of Cluetrain – we can all be right in the marketplace of conversation so long as we’re open and honest about our opinions and use them to advance a meaningful conversation and produce unique but complementary sounds.